October 28, 2008
The Cook County Forest Preserve District earned the Civic Federation’s support for its $193.6 million FY2009 spending plan by showing property tax restraint. The District’s prudent policy of maintaining adequate reserves allowed it to draw down on those reserves rather than raising taxes during a time of economic hardship for Cook County residents. The Federation will announce its position on the budget at the District’s public hearing today at 2:00 p.m.
For the third consecutive year, the District has released a capital improvement plan, or CIP, and this year included contact information for members of the public wishing to comment on the plan. The Federation commends the District for releasing the CIP on the same day as the budget document. Noting that the CIP is a work in progress, the analysis includes several recommendations for ways to improve the CIP document in the future. These proposals include making the CIP process more transparent by including a description of how the plan has been formulated and disclosing more information about capital projects at the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden.
In its analysis, the Federation found that the District will contain its health insurance costs to an increase of only 2.8%, despite personnel increases. This is an admirable achievement given national health insurance inflation rates of 5-10% in recent years. The District still faces fiscal pressures in the future, however, due to a retroactive bargaining agreement and its plans to add 11 full-time-equivalent positions. Before adding more staff, the District should implement and publish a performance measurement system that would assess how existing staff resources could be allocated most efficiently and perhaps negate the need for more hiring.
In the spring of 2008, the Civic Federation and Friends of the Forest Preserves issued a report advocating for the creation of a separate elected Board of Commissioners to govern the District. The report found that the current organization of the District and County Boards leads to conflicts of interest and inhibits proper oversight of the District. In its analysis of the proposed District budget, the Federation continued to champion the creation of a separate elected Board. “Despite the Civic Federation’s support for this budget, there are fundamental problems that arise from the current governance structure, such as the conflict between economic development and land preservation, that will remain so long as there are double-duty commissioners,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation.
The Civic Federation calls on the Cook County Board of Commissioners to support and the Illinois General Assembly to approve Senate Bill 3046, which would create a separate Board of Forest Preserve Commissioners. “The Federation commends Senator Don Harmon for introducing this crucial legislation and urges its swift passage.”